"We arrived in South Africa with a backpack each and nowhere to live. Four years later, we started a winery... We still can't really believe it."
WHEN LITTLEWINE MET RYAN & SAMANTHA
It’s not always that the first meeting with a winemaker is how one might imagine it to be. In the case of Ryan and Samantha, perhaps you have a mental image of the South African wilderness. Maybe we’re drinking sundowners, preparing a braai, chatting and laughing contentedly while gazing across the shrublands of the Swartland, while faraway wild animal calls echo at night. Perhaps there’s even a pair of kudu on the horizon, or maybe we’ve spotted the tracks of a leopard.
In reality, the first time that LITTLEWINE and this young-gun wine couple chat, it's... on Facebook.
It’s 2016. We wander into our local wine shop and find a bottle we’ve never seen before, with the most mystifying-meets-bizarre label. It’s a label that somehow manages to combine cool, freaky and tempting all at the same time. The wine itself is called SMILEY NV (edition 1), and it is so compelling that we pick up a pen and start writing about it on our first wine blog (which no longer exists).
"What on Earth is this?" we wonder, but one thing's for sure - we cannot get enough of it. Our young noses and palates have never smelt or tasted anything like it before.
A few hours later, we're surprised to open a chat box that pops up on our computer screen, from a woman named Samantha Suddons.
“Hey! I make the Smiley with my partner Ryan. Thanks so much for the awesome write-up - so glad you liked the wine. Your tasting notes are super interesting, I love hearing about all the different things people get from the wine. I’m glad it’s making the rounds in London!"
“Ah thanks! Honestly it is just so good. It is one of the most exciting Chenins we've tried. Thank YOU for making it!”
Secretly, we're also overwhelmed with joy that Samantha found our blog post; and wrote to us! At the time, we think that the only people who are reading our writing are our families, and perhaps a handful of our colleagues. It gives us encouragement to keep picking up our pen, and to keep sharing the feelings that wines like these give us.
Fast forward to 2018
Before we know it, it’s March 2018, and we're sitting on a patio in Riebeek-Kasteel, in the Swartland, with Samantha and Ryan. We're drinking enormous gin and tonics as the sun goes down; so at least the sundowners part of the fantasy is coming true.
The next day, we find ourselves in their cellar, tasting from 20+ vessels: amphorae, eggs, steel and tiny glass demijohns. Ryan speaks at a million miles an hour and leaps, gazelle-like, from vessel to vessel with his wine thief. He asks us questions on every single wine, and leans back, scratching his head as we reply, constantly deep in thought.
Each wine has its own soul, its own vibrancy, its own distinct personality. We realise in this moment that Ryan and Samantha, as well as being kind and bubbly people, are dedicated farmers and winemakers. In a cellar space that gave birth to some of the greatest winemakers South Africa has seen; Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst; this young duo is clearly following in their steps. It is evident that they have an exceptional talent - in tending their vineyards, reading their grapes' potential, and helping them to become the best wines they can be.
As we write this with fond memories, we realise that without wines and moments like these, the LITTLEWINE journey might not even have begun. Every wine writer needs wines that demand to be written about. Smiley was, and continues to be one of those wines, and it is now joined by its siblings, Silwervis and Terracura, which we are equally fond of.
This is why we want to tell you about them. How did a Zimbabwean and a Brit fall in love in Italy, and how did they end up in South Africa with nothing but a backpack each? Here they are to tell you...
Hear Their Story
Once they moved to South Africa, Ryan spent time working in the vineyards and cellar of Reyneke, biodynamic pioneers in Stellenbosch. In 2014, the opportunity arose for them to pursue their dream of making their own wines together.
Unless you are born a land owner, come from wealth, save up for years or manage to strike an exceptionally good deal, land is expensive to buy. Hence, the duo works with landowners of many different plots of vineyards for their grapes.
For some of these vineyards, the farmers that own the land do the farming themselves. However, Ryan and Samantha are always in close contact with them, to ensure that work is carried out organically, and to give advice on when to compost, and when to sow cover crops. The fruit from some of these vineyards are shared with other winemakers, so they can all pitch in and make decisions together.
Other plots are on lease to them, meaning that while they don’t own the vineyards, they are able to work the land entirely themselves every year: from pruning to harvest and everything in between. This is the case with their old vine Chenin Blanc vineyard, which planted in 1964, their pride and joy.
They are proud defenders of their old vines, and they believe that with age, vines find an inherent balance. Samantha contemplates,
"It's so interesting with the old vines. Our '64 plot always gets harvested last - the grapes just seem to be able to hang for much longer. This brings a concentration, richness and intensity to the wine, without losing acid - the vines are able to balance themselves. This brings such a personality to the wine, and that's why the Silwervis only goes into concrete and steel - we want to keep it pure as can be, without any external influence."
The Swartland is home to a myriad of soil types and grape varieties. Ryan and Samantha's work with Chenin Blanc, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, planted on almost every soil type imaginable - from schist, to granite, to sand to clay.
Their Vineyards in the Swartland
This rainbow of soil types and grape varieties provides them with the perfect playground; tasting in the cellar with Ryan and Samantha is somewhere in between being in a perfumery, and being in an artist’s studio. Every wine is either a geometrical object or a splash of paint on one of Kadinsky’s canvases, and every wine has the most pronounced aromas. There is such a spectrum of scents that we're almost overwhelmed by how powerful the natural perfume of wine can be.
Ryan and Samantha's first label, Silwervis, was born from the desire to create true terroir wines of the Swartland; wines that were created naturally, without added lab-cultured yeasts or corrections, something that was radical at the time of its birth. Ryan emphasises,
"The Silwervis is where we stand back from the terroir, where the vineyard makes the wine."
From single vineyards of Chenin Blanc and Cinsault, planted on the granite soils of the Paadeberg, the dream is for these wines to metaphorically transport you straight to the soils that grew these vines.
If the Smiley cuvée was a person, it would be the couple's is outgoing party child, with flowers in her hair. It was created out of a love and fascination for flor, Madeira and oxidative styles, together with a desire to create something from all the little "off cuts" of Chenin Blanc wines that weren't yet destined for a specific wine. Its red sibling, the flock, the Smiley red, is cut from the same cloth, but instead made from Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tinta Barocca.
In the Swartland, as they put it, "we pretty much just have grapes, wheat and sheep." When eating meat, nothing goes to waste there, so it's a tradition to eat every part of the animal - all of the "off-cuts" - including the head, which is nicknamed the Smiley. When looking at their mind-boggling new creation, Ryan and Samantha saw a similarity in this cuvée, and that's how its name came to be.
If the Smiley is the flower-child, hippy wine, then the Spesiale is the Smiley's punk-rock spawn with black eyeliner, skinny jeans and a rebellious heart.
After a couple of years creating the Smiley cuvée, Ryan and Samantha started to notice some wines appearing that were so unique in themselves, that it would be a shame to blend them into the Smiley. This is how the Spesiale came to be: the first version came from two barrels of skin-contact Chenin Blanc, and the second version (available on LITTLEWINE) came from a tank that had the best flor growing that Samantha and Ryan had ever seen in the winery. As huge flor fanatics, they decided it would almost have been treachery to blend this gift of nature away, so they bottled it under the Spesiale cuvée; into precisely 777 bottles.
Meet Smiley Spesiale
The latest addition to the growing herd of Ryan and Samantha's farm, Ryan and Samantha wanted to create a label that allowed their winemaking vision to encompass other vineyards and other areas of the Swartland. Ryan, a self-confessed Northern Rhône devotee (he loves it so much he even went to do a vintage with the King of Côte Rotie, Jamet), had long visualised a Swartland Syrah from what he deems to be the South African version of the Route des Grands Crus: the Kasteelberg.
It is a label that allows them to expand their horizons; both literally and metaphorically. When looking at the simplicity of the labels, and the striking meaning behind "terra cura" - caring for the earth - we are certain that there are many paths ahead for these two. Any vineyard that finds its way into their hands is a lucky vineyard.
Want to taste a Swartlandish multi-vintage Chenin Blanc made from over 20 components? Fancy an African Syrah that challenges even the best from the Northern Rhône?